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What is Executive Function? And Why is it Important? 

 

By Emma Thomas – Full-time mum to a 18-month-old, part-time blogger and writer, with a background as a Kindy Teacher/Director

 

Executive function is one of the current ‘buzzwords’ in early childhood. Your Kindy teacher might tell you that your child needs to work on their executive functioning skills, you might see an article about it or hear a parenting educator talking about it. The executive function skills often get talked about as the ‘air traffic control system of the brain’. 

But what are the executive functions? Why are they important in our children’s lives and what can we do to help them develop these skills?

 

Your executive function skills allow you to get everyday activities done, when you are making dinner while answering the phone, talking to your partner about their day and getting your child a snack (but not one that will spoil their dinner) you are using these skills. 

  • Working Memory – helps you to remember what goes into the dish you are making, helps you remember to ask your partner about the important thing that happened in their day. 
  • Mental Flexibility – helps you concentrate on all the things which are happening, it also helps you change your plans for dinner when you realise you are out of a key ingredient
  • Inhibitory Control – helps you wait until the meal is ready to eat, helps you focus on the conversation at hand (when you might prefer to sit down in front of the TV).

 

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes these skills as the ‘air traffic control system of the brain’. These skills work together to allow us to ‘control impulses, make plans and stay focused’.  Most adults have well developed executive functioning skills, but our children are still developing them and need lots of support in these critical years.  (https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/building-the-brains-air-traffic-control-system-how-early-experiences-shape-the-development-of-executive-function/)

Here is a brief explanation of the skills

Working Memory – allows us to remember what is going on while we complete a task or activity. 

Mental Flexibility – is when our brain is able to shift gears when presented with new information and how we understand there are different rules in different situations 

Inhibitory Control – our self control, it allows us to think before we speak, master our impulses and resist temptations. 

 

Everyday experiences are the best way to promote and develop our children’s executive functioning skills. When I take my daughter shopping she gets the chance to practice her skills. I make sure I am modelling these skills in the way that I talk. 

  • Working Memory – we talk about what we are going to buy and check back against the list
  • Mental Flexibility – ‘Oh no! There isn’t any watermelon, what do we do now?’ We talk about what our other options are and choose something else. 
  • Inhibitory Control – shopping is a great test of this! My daughter has to sit in the trolley, not pull things off the shelf and I won’t buy everything she asks for!

 

Another fascinating area is the way in which music promotes executive function skills. Professor Kate Williams and Kindermusik both have excellent resources and information on their websites https://ramsrblog.wordpress.com/ 

https://www.kindermusik.com/mindsonmusic/music-boosts-executive-function-in-kids/

When children participate in music experiences they are developing their skills:

  • Working Memory – remember the words or action to songs.
  • Mental Flexibility – changing between songs, changing actions, leaving words out (like in B.I.N.G.O.)
  • Inhibitory Control – participating with the group, waiting when it’s not your turn. 

 

When we understand that our children are still developing these skills we can be more sympathetic towards them. We can also support their development as they grow when we have a better understanding of what is happening in their brains. 

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